Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017.12.31 Threats With Promises

Threats in world many. Each carries promise. Indulge year-end blogger rant in headlines. Bless you.

1. Drugs: far more abundant with cheap choices and more omnipresently aggressive in their demands for attention. It’s hard to say no.
     YET many do, and many heal from addictive disease through medication and therapy, and from love, faith and hope—three unconditional spiritual values. Yes, unconditional.

2. Venomous American political conversation: escalates to violence, government paralyzed, guns more available to more people than ever—and considered indispensable to some. To inject sanity and, godde forbid, love for all, into this environment risky as hell.
    YET good people, political and priestly, keep praying and working for good gun control legislation and an end to violence in speech and action. They are the blood donors, the organs our culture needs.

3. Sex, as in practice thereof and orientation therein: acceptance, no, expectation, that sexual behavior, yes, intercourse, is the normative even for teens, common—and competitive. When did you have your first lay—or get laid? When did you lose your virginity first? When did you have your first smoke, beer, snort—gun? Kiss feared old-fashioned. It may have lost its supremacy as a sign of young, tenderly-cautious, physical attraction-towards-love.
    YET older teens and twenties are engaging in less sex than past generations. No one knows why. Possibly choosing to explore getting-to-know-you love first? Psychological data: females depend on mutually supportive relationships for their well-being. So do men, GLBQIS. Dating around, sleeping around, hooking up, one-nighters can’t satisfy the deep longing for relationship; nor can erections and orgasms.

4. Marriage: uncertain and faraway goal for many. In olden days girls pushed and shoved into it by the fear, no terror, of getting pregnant. Currently, more choice. Birth control seen as  protective, except for STDs, but the safety it provides can hinder long-term relationship security aka marriage.
    YET emotional commitment, whatever one’s orientation, is, yes, still nourishes mind, heart, body, and soul—if nothing else to practice the sanctity of marriage should one choose it in the future.   

5. Technology: broad range of options, bordering on omniscience (Google) and omnipresence (i-phones actually text you to let you know your parents are tracking your whereabouts—true), and omnipotence (Amazon Prime.) These attributes used to belong to God (by whatever name) aka divine Mystery. They still do. Technology unable to provide flesh-and-blood love, unconditional beneficence, or shared audible visible embodied rich laughter. Easy to hide behind emojis.
    YET social media technology does give people a community of understanding, support, advice, accompaniment, and safety.

6. Religion: weak in the northeast; humanism, atheism, secularism viable options; religions fail at apologetics. What does this or that religion mean? Who or what really is God? Christ? Moses? Is there spirituality beyond morality and rules of conduct? Is it enough to be a good person?       
Researcher at Harvard Divinity School, Angie Thurston, calls millennial generation “religiously homeless” in opinion piece by Zachary Davis:“Has Secularism Gone Too Far?”  (Boston Globe, Ideas, 12/24/17) Response letters (12/31/17) unanimously—tellingly— defensive, angry.
    YET secularism thought too rational, pessimistic. Davis identified a mismatch between the job religion is supposed to do and society’s floundering search for that job to be done. The job? Not the preaching of morality, but the steady inspiration of hope, not just in afterlife but now: “. . . a hope that goes beyond reason—to give us the strength to pursue a world beyond reasonable expectations.”  Religion stretches the possible.  Granddaughter asks, with an edge: “Grammy, why do you pray?” “I pray because I love. And because my love is not enough.”

7. Public education: public schools forbidden to teach religion as a cultural phenomenon, as the spawn of great works of philosophy and literature, even some biblical literature and moral principles. Something missing. Separation of church and state necessary good. Still, young seekers in public settings unable to study every blooming thing they wonder about. “Wisdom begins in wonder.” Socrates.  But not in our public schools. Religion not even an elective. Religion condemned as proselytizing to fill its coffers. Good teaching never proselytizes.
    YET  . . . slowly religion and wonderments sneak in and silently infect and inform many curious hearts. The same granddaughter searches on line, not in school. Tries pantheism, atheism, agnostic theism, and many things. Trust God will find her and she will find the Love therein that she seeks.

8. Theology/God: how we think and speak about divinity, factor in sociological analysis. Religions consistently allow one image to dominate, a theological stereotype, a superpower deity who is almighty, transcendent, masculine, and interventionist. Image idolatrous. Limits divinity; limits human spirituality.
    YET traditional theology has always proclaimed God as equally immanent. God lives and moves deep within flesh, strengthening, encouraging and empowering love us to love—no matter what. In this God I trust. In this God possible to love, live, move and have being. For this Christians, this is God Jesus died for—to die and so to live.

8. Spirituality: name for what all humanity deeply craves and often does not find in society or church.
    YET Love discovered available in ditches and trenches, in pews and sewers, on streets and in mansions, in life and in death, and in one’s own lonely unlovely flesh. A woman, struggling for years to create/enhance her own self-esteem, suddenly hugs a friend and sobs:“I’ve just discovered that there is a little piece of God in all of us, and in me, too”
    YET God is Mystery—beyond our words—and small enough to adore them.

9. Personal: beloved husband and wife born on same day three years apart. Wife has seniority. Today both alive and well, bloated with gratitude—also fret, spat and grieve changes and terrors that seem to take away church and country. 
     YET  . . . they can still laugh and hug
    YET . . .  one day both will die and leave this beautiful place and all the people they love.
    YET . . .  there is something more Godde has in mind, they hope. Creation never stops.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

2017.12.24 The Under-Genius of All Things—At Christmas

There is no joy that is not mixed with muck and muddle and cynical commentary and genuine pique, even if you hide it, eject it, silence it, blame it on the weather.  And  yet . . .

This morning we listened, my dear spouse and I, to the annual Kings College, Cambridge England, service of Nine Lessons and Carols. It is nothing if not utterly traditional. I admit to feeling tired, once again, of gendered language for the Holy. And yet  . . .

My emotions, my love of creativity, Creator God, and Beauty itself took over. Later I contented myself with a small addition to the wondrous words of the text of English poet Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) for the final stanza of the Christmas Carol: “In the bleak mid-winter.” 

What can I gave him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
but since I am a woman, I would give my flesh;
yet what I can I give him:
     give my heart.

To abandon one’s very correct political correctness for the sake of God’s holiday—and ours—is what I think the late poet Brian Doyle means by having the courage to discern the “under-genius” of  it all at Christmas. 

Muttered Prayer in Thanks for the Under-Genius of Christmas

Putting up ye old fir tree last night, and pondering why again we slay a perfectly healthy tree ten years of age, not even a teenager yet, and prop up the body, and drape it with frippery, and then finally feed the brittle former vibrancy into a chipper, paying a grim Boy Scout five bucks for the privilege; I watched mine bride and children quietly for a while, from behind the tree where I was struggling with that haunted cursed string of lights, and I saw the under-genius of it all: I saw beneath the tinsel and nog, the snarl of commerce and the ocean of misspent money; I saw the quiet pleasure of ritual, the actual no-kidding, no-fooling urge to pause and think about other people and their joy, the anticipation of days spent laughing and shouldering in the kitchen, with no agenda and no press of duty. I saw the flash of peace and love under all the shrill selling and tinny theater; and I was thrilled and moved. And then I remembered too that the ostensible reason for it all was the Love being bold and brave enough to assume a form that would bleed and break and despair and die; and I was again moved, and abashed; and I finished untangling the epic knot of lights, shivering yet again with happiness that we were given such a sweet terrible knot of a world to untangle, as best we can, with bumbling love. And so: amen.
Do you risk having eyes and ears and nose for the under-genius of it all? 

As a child I was seized by my father’s absence from the tree project. Oh, he was present in body but he was preoccupied with his cocktail and didn’t join in. Perhaps he had suffered the epic tangle of lights. I don’t remember. I worried about him. I longed for him. I couldn’t understand why my mother and my sisters were jollily going along unheeding. There was something wrong with this picture, and I wept.

I could not yet see the under-genius of it all. If I had, I might have been able to join in and trim the tree without fear and inhibition. If I had, I might have called Daddy to come join us—just put one little bright ball on our tree. And he would have smiled, thanked me, and declined. If I had seen the under-genius of Christmas, I would have known that Daddy was there with us even if he couldn’t participate in the way I wanted. And that would’ve been enough. I also might have realized that my Daddy was not God— and maybe that there is a manger inside all of us. 

When I stop and notice the under-genius of Christmas I can see that joy is not happiness or maple syrup. It is an inner feeling of hope, hope so huge and defiant it counters all reason. It's the under-genius, the under-joy.  So I give my heart. 

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

2017.12.21 A Death At Christmas

When someone dies near Christmas time people take it harder than at other times of year. Why is that? I suppose it creates an inner emotional conflict between joy and sorrow, between bright red and grey-blue. You know what I mean. We just have to feel both. God carries it all in one sacred heart, and good friends are friends or family who do not try to talk you in or out of your true feelings.

Christmas colors are bright red, gold, green. Christmas colors are also blue and black and gray. Simply so.

Today on the liturgical calendar is a day set aside to remember the apostle Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples. He’s known for being a doubter, but that’s poppycock. All he asked for was the facts, please. And Jesus, with deep respect, honored Thomas’s request. Simply so. Death is like that.

On December 18th, a friend of many years died. Everyone called her Glo. Some of her grandchildren called her GoGo. Her full name was Gloria Masterson Richardson. She had more than her share of tragedy in her 90 years of earthly life, and yet she remained cussedly independent, no, obdurate, yet never lost her faith in Jesus Christ and herself, and kept her sense of humor, which was epic!  As she was going in and out of her dying she quipped to me over the phone which the good nurse held to her ear: “Better stick around for the damn carolers!” That was Glo. She was a poet, a mentor, a sister in faith, and my first official writing teacher, not to mention heavy duty cheerleader.   

Glo had three wishes she hoped would come true before she died:
    -that she would be able to attend her grandson’s wedding;
    - that she would live to see her dear friend Catherine admitted as a Companion to the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, a “community of women, Christ's disciples, called by God to a life of prayer, transformation and reconciliation within ourselves, within our Companionship, within our faith communities, and within the whole creation” of which Glo was a member;   
    -that she would live to see her first book, a collection of her fine poetry, published.

All three happened—no miracle just the facts and lots of loving help . . .
    Glo attended the wedding in a beautiful blue dress, which Catherine helped her buy—a comic adventure that ended in beauty. (Where is the bathroom in a huge department store—ever?)
    Catherine McGeary was admitted as a Companion on September 16, 2016. 
    Glo’s book of poetry, Currents, was placed into her dying hands by Catherine less than 24 hours before she died. Did she know it? Dying or not, no one misses the feel of a first book.

Here is one of Glo’s poems—a prayer of wisdom and serenity and courage.
    by Gloria Masterson Richardson

Open my heart, Lord,
so that I can be strong enough,
brave enough to surrender
to your healing love.
When I cannot say the words,
speak for me;
cannot trust, hold me;
cannot cry, weep for me;
cannot help, reach out for me;
cannot see the path, light my way.

And here is a poem I wrote for her as she lay dying.

Helplessly Hopeful at 90
    by Lyn G. Brakeman

The old lady poet
—never a poetess—
is dying,
wasting away before my eyes
and ears,
her voice stiffens
her chuckle flutters
her cheeks sag and pouch
her faith mellows.
She is dimming—
only a poem brightens her day,
engages her mind
delights her soul—
a poem or heaven
the same to her.

“I’m just moving on through it,”
she tells me.
No not yet, I think, and cry.

If I were God I’d say to her:
Gloria, you are a poem


Sunday, December 17, 2017

2017.12.17 Little Things Can Be Big

Sometimes I say to myself: Lyn, bevel your edge!

What I mean is my critical edge. I can spoil the fun when I’m too serious for my own good or anyone else’s. Ask my sister. She is always excessively joyful and it bugs the bejesus out of me— sometimes, but not always. We joke and laugh about our edges and other things too fierce to mention. We have stopped saying: What’s wrong with you, or what what’s wrong with me? We are differently abled, as they love to say in the world of political correctness, but we have made a relationship of trust and mutuality that works. Not bad for intimate sibling enemies. It only took 75 years.

Still, I am naturally wired to look deep before I make any joy-leaps—wary. Christmas is the season of annoyingly excessive joy, and this Sunday is often but not always called Gaudete Sunday—designated for Joy. Some parishes signal Gaudete with a pink candle on the Advent wreath. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice. . .” (Philippians 4:4)

Joy is that anxious unsettling undefinable energy of anticipation. Something new will happen and it will be good—but not yet.  It’s very hard not to push the season.  Joy isn't happiness and no whoopee; rather it is deep within, nestled in the manger of every human heart. 

Recently I was in Harvard Square walking as I frequently do to get my hair cut for too much money, just because I so admire the owner who does hair and makes me look spiffy and massages my scalp with kind firm fingers.  

Because of a construction site walkers were diverted into a one-lane walkway. That’s when I encountered this beggar in his wheelchair. He wasn’t a new sight. I often give him a little money. He suffers from some crippling condition, possibly Cerebral Palsy. But on this day he, or someone of genius, has placed him directly in the path of the rush of oncoming pedestrians—a startling presence. 

He doesn’t walk or talk; he can only move one arm a bit. He is unattractive, overweight, unkempt, unshaven or badly shaven; his eyes seem a little crossed, but it’s hard to tell because his head stays drooped. He sits slumped in his chair in the same place along the sidewalk—omnipresent. He’s right in my path and I’m annoyed, in a hurry.

I open my wallet. He waits. I have forgotten to get change and have only two $20 bills. Damn!

“Well, look at that,” I say. “I don’t have any smaller bills so this is it for today.”  I retrieve a twenty and start to put it in his pouch. He spots the bill. He looks up. He grins from ear to ear, toothless as well. And then he speaks.

"Thank you, oh thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I say, or some such vapidity.  I want to move on. But no, he wants to talk.

“You know what I was just praying for?” I shake my head no. “I was just praying for snow” He laughs loudly. “Snow!”

To wish for snow would seem the least likely thing for an outdoor beggar to wish for, and yet the joke about wishing for snow is common. It’s a New England thing. The last thing we wants is SNOW, ever. He knows this and delights in his joke. I react with the horror that is expected. “Oh no, not snow!” 

He motions with his one good hand for me to bend towards him. I lean down. He motions me closer. I follow. He grabs onto my arm and pulls me even closer. I smell his stale breath. I recoil a little. Then he kisses my cheek. The kiss is wet, sloppy,  drooly, and wildly authentic—a tiny moment. As I leave him I tell him I say: “Stop praying for snow, Okay?”  I can still hear his chuckle.

As I walked on I wanted to wipe away the wet kiss using all the proper rationales. But I did not, could not, wipe away this kiss I neither deserved nor expected. I will never forget this little big thing.  

What I tell you happened just as I have said. I dare not say more. So: Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017.12.10 How Do I Love Thee?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

"Sonnet 43: How do I love thee, let me count the ways" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Public domain.

“How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.”  This is an intimate marital joke. I invented it and it always makes us laugh. If we are in a snit about one thing or another, or even if only I am feeling impatient, largely because of something utterly inconsequential, such as he’s in my way as I traverse our small kitchen, I say: “How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.”

It’s impossible to laugh and snarl at the same time. The face won’t do it.

This is very far from romantic I know, but what is romance in 2017 in a world full of snark and public incivility even from the White House? Yet it is true that everyone has a love story—not always exotic but always authentic. 

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning fell in love, and poetry was their language. Browning wrote: ”I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett ... and I love you too." She wrote a long letter in return, thanking him and asking him for ways she might improve her writing. Barrett was an invalid, and was reliant on morphine, and it was some months before Browning convinced her to meet him face to face. Barrett's father didn't like Browning, and viewed him as a fortune hunter. Love and poetry prevailed and the couple eloped in 1846—off to Italy. Where else? Barrett never saw her father again.

Every love of any kind comes with its shadow. In spiritual terms, cross and cradle remain inseparable—not for doom but for truth. We all crave solution and resolution, and we sentimentalize love to rid it of fear. Every prophet in every religion fiercely cries out against falling in love with illusory glitter. Yet we do. So? God is still falling in love, still ready to elope, still ready to be born and to die. 

I offer this wisdom at all costs and anyway: Tell the bold, bare, fierce truth about hate and sin and rage and outrage. Then keep going. Be John the Baptist. Be Jesus. Be both. Go where the love is and invest with courage. So what if it can’t last or be perfect? Go for it anyway. God does.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

2017.12.03 Advent of Sexual Harassment?—Always in Season

In the midst of this avalanche of allegations about sexual harassment, I asked my beloved priest spouse: Have you ever sexually harassed anyone?

Answer: Besides you?

What I keep on recalling, not as excuse but as cultural history, is that sexual harassment has been acceptable behavior for centuries. It was almost expected, and both men and women learned to live with it, their roles and rules clear: men pinch and comment; women demure, blush and dodge.  Feelings about it weren’t important.

So had I ever been sexually harassed in my work place, which was in the church? That includes volunteer work.

Once a priest commented on the movement of my body as I turned the drum of one of those old mimeograph machines. He liked to watch it, my butt not the machine. God forbid, I was flattered. I also felt uncomfortable. That was mostly because I worried that my behind was too fat or too flat, or whatever other idiotic body judgment I imposed on my body. Really? Yes.

What I experienced a lot was something I’d call attitudinal harassment. A bishop once towered over me and queried: “And WHO will take care of the children?” It wasn’t exactly harassment but it was shriveling and left little room for my perspective, let alone my answer. His assumption was that I couldn’t leave home. Mine was that my children would benefit from less not more parenting as they grew.  

My role in the church was limited to set up, clean up, ogle the altar, and in time, administer the chalice at the communion rail (a much trickier maneuver than passing out the bread/wafer), read from scripture on a Sunday, and serve on the vestry. I shoved my way along toward more and more leadership roles, ending up as Dean of our regional deanery, until finally the Church voted in 1976 that women could be ordained priests. Full acceptance of women in leadership is a work-in-progress.

Context is important—always. Some of this ongoing mess we’re in is a matter of interpretation, according to different times and different circumstances…and just plain evolution. My dad, for example, was a “mad man” in the 1950s. He had an affair with his secretary. Maybe more, though he was penitent and confessed his dalliance to my mother. What startled me most was that she told us daughters about it. Was that hostile? To whom?

In high school in a Connecticut shore town famous for gentlemen’s agreements (antisemitism in real estate, Christian/white elitism), I observed that lots of flirting went on amidst the cocktail party set. My mother wasn’t innocent. I learned from her that flirting was power—dangerous power. But my mother flirted with style. Is flirting sexual harassment of a sort?  What about flirting in the work place?

But these were the rules back then in the 1950s: men got handsy not just at parties but in work places. Women were supposed to overlook it or find clever ways to avoid office rape. It was a predator/prey culture, the assumption being that boys and men couldn’t help it—all that testosterone you know. Women had to work around it. These have been the rules over centuries, and they remained the rules.

Until 2017?  Well, we’ll see.

The point I want to make is that I still loved my dad and saw other good things in him. He never sexually harassed me with comments or looks. I felt proud when he retired early because advertising was becoming unethical, he thought ie. false advertising.

Plenty of great artists (Picasso for one, Woody Allen for another) have treated women in abusive exploitive ways. Does that discredit their art, their gifts?  How do we separate and sift all this while at the same time reshaping our collective mores/morality for the common good? Gawd, look at most all our presidents! Not to mention many saints and bishops!! Does their behavior toward women discredit their skills and accomplishment?

I’m a big-picture, person, for better or worse, so I see that it is increasingly incumbent on ALL of us to work together to end the abuses across the board born within a deeply entrenched, centuries-old patriarchal system of social organization. What was overlooked by everyone, men and women alike, really is now impossible to overlook. Or is it? American politics, religion, economics, morality across the boards, has been corrupted/contaminated by a silent consensus to ignore or deny unconscionable behaviors. Most painful to me is the fact that all this has as its underpinning the strong belief that women are not people, I mean not really people! 

To speak theologically, which I can’t resist: Sin is a condition that develops when anyone or ones become disconnected from the goodness in themselves, God, and their neighbors. And there you have it. Sin is always in our reach, which is why the system murdered Jesus for not recanting his politics and his image of God rich in compassion for the poor, the sick, the needful, the preyed upon, the underbelly of society—and women. Sin is endemic and inevitable, which is why all of us need to try to be Christ-like, to understand what that means, and to remember that every week in Eucharist we are re-Christified.

Will it be different now, or is it really going to be different now with all the latest revelations and fierce confessions?  I hope so. I pray so. You know my death throes of patriarchy theory. Godde knows!